Just as you never step into the same river twice, you can never read the same book twice. You always bring something new to it. I recently listened to the divine Juliet Stevenson reading Sense and Sensibility. I first read Jane Austen when I was around the same age as the young women in her novels, and I find that these days, when I’m . . . well, let’s say a woman of a certain age, I see some aspects in a very different light. This time I felt unsatisfied by the ending of Sense and Sensibility. To summarise – I feel that in the case of such well-known novels, it’s not necessary to avoid spoilers – it is pretty clear early on that the recklessly romantic Marianne is going to come a cropper when she falls in love with the dashing Willoughby. Austen does make it clear that Mrs Dashwood failed in her duty to her daughter by allowing the seventeen year old Marianne full rein. But did Austen (and Mrs Dashwood) really have to go to the other extreme by marrying Marianne to Colonel Brandon, who is nearly twenty years older and decent but dull? Certainly not what I would have wanted for Marianne had I been her mother.
And there is the rub. Now that I am a parent myself, I find myself casting a critical eye over fictional parents (not that I am perfect myself, I freely admit). What about Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who is presented as amusingly wry and ironic in contrast with his wife, who is foolish and vulgar. Yes, she IS foolish and vulgar and often misguided, but she is also right to be anxious to get her daughters settled with good husbands. The estate is entailed and they will lose most of their income when Mr Bennet dies. Not other career but marriage is open to them. The novels are in fact full of terrible parents – Mrs Price in Mansfield Park, Sir Walter in Persuasion, to name only two more.
Of course it’s not just Jane Austen. It wasn’t until I had children myself that I really understood what it meant for Anna Karenina to leave her son behind when she elopes with Vronsky.
This revisiting of old friends and seeing them in a new light is one of the pleasures of getting older and I’m interested in what other people feel about this.
While I am here, I’ll just mention that my first newsletter comes out tomorrow. You can subscribe here: http://www.christinepoulson.co.uk/newsletter/
‘Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage.’ Those are the most famous lines from the poem ‘To Althea from Prison’ by the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace, written around 1642. We are not exactly in prison, but we are certainly confined. Here is the whole thing, along with a picture of a violet in our garden.
When Love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my Gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the Grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fettered to her eye,
The Gods that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Liberty.
When flowing Cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with Roses bound,
Our hearts with Loyal Flames;
When thirsty grief in Wine we steep,
When Healths and draughts go free,
Fishes that tipple in the Deep
Know no such Liberty.
When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty,
And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how Great should be,
Enlargèd Winds, that curl the Flood,
Know no such Liberty.
Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Liberty.
I’m delighted to welcome to my blog, my good friend Martin Edwards. Congratulations are in order as he is this year’s winner of the prestigious CWA Diamond Dagger for contributions to crime fiction.
His new novel, Mortmain, set between the wars, is just out. It is the follow-up to the splendid Gallows Court. It is on my TBR pile and I am looking forward to discovering what his glamorous heroine, Rachel Savernake, will get up to next. It opens with her boarding a funeral train on the London Necroplis Railway . . .
I asked Martin about the challenges and pleasure of writing historical crime fiction. This is what he had to say.
Writing the 1930s Today
Most of my fiction is set in the here and now, but I’m fascinated by history and over the years I’ve written quite a few mysteries set at different times in the past. These include numerous short stories and also a novel about the life and misadventures of Dr Crippen, Dancing for the Hangman; I loved writing that one because it gave me the chance to get inside the head of a strange and fascinating character.
During the past few years, I’ve indulged my lifelong love of Golden Age detective fiction in factual work such as The Golden Age of Murder and introductions to the British Library Crime Classics. I found myself increasingly drawn to the Twenties and Thirties, and this prompted me to try writing a novel set in 1930.
This book was Gallows Court; it represented a major departure from my previous novels, partly because I didn’t plan the storyline in advance, and partly because creating the lead character, Rachel Savernake, gave me the chance to write from a fresh perspective that I found exciting. Of course, even a historical novel reflects the attitudes of the period when it was written – so I aimed to embrace that reality, whilst trying to remain faithful to the conventions of the time when the action takes place.
Rachel and the journalist Jacob Flint return in my latest book. Mortmain Hall has an elaborate whodunit plot in the classic tradition, and I’ve revived the notion of the Cluefinder, setting out the clues to the mystery at the end of the story. Of course, one of the differences between this book and the novels written during the Golden Age is that I wasn’t alive in 1930, so research is vital.
Having soaked myself in vintage popular fiction, I had an advantage in terms of understanding the period, but I still found it necessary to research extensively. This takes time, but when it yields results, it can be infinitely rewarding. And one of the first reactions to Mortmain Hall – totally unexpected – was a post on the Desperate Reader blog (https://desperatereader.blogspot.com/2020/04/booze-and-books-mortmain-hall-post.html) discussing, of all things the various types of alcohol that feature in the book. Not only did I enjoy the piece enormously, I was also very glad that I’d taken the trouble to do my homework! Nobody can get it right all the time, but when writing a historical crime novel, one owes it to one’s readers to try to give the story a whiff of authenticity as well as serving up an entertaining mystery.
To find out more about Martin, do go to his splendid blog, one of my must-reads: DoYouWriteUnderYourOwnName.blogspot
Walking around our garden and seeing the spring flowers, a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins came into my head: ‘there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.’ I looked it up when I got inside and here it is, ‘God’s Grandeur.’ The flowers are, of course, forget-me-nots along with a single solitary celandine.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings
I’ve decided to add something new to my blog while we are all on lockdown. Now and then I will be posting a photo from our garden and a poem that I am finding consoling in these difficult days. Today it is marsh marigolds and the poem is ‘Thaw’ by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), one of my favourite poets.
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flowers of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.
Twelve days into lockdown and you’d think these were ideal conditions in which to write a novel. After all, apart from a walk every day, I am going nowhere and I am seeing no-one except my daughter – and of course the cats. No trips to London. No lunches with friends. And yet, the time seems somehow to get filled up. I am cooking a lot more than usual, and I’m also having a very sociable time: emailing, FaceTiming, getting together with my book group on Zoom, and telephoning far, far more than usual. We’ve even managed to play games with my stepson and his wife via FaceTime. They live fifteen minutes drive away, but they might as well be on the moon for all person-to-person contact we are having with them.
But it is more than being busy that makes it hard to get on with the next novel. The turmoil in the outside world makes it difficult to settle to anything. It doesn’t help that I am at the beginning of the planning and plotting stage. It’s hard to get into the roaming, free-range state of mind that’s needed for generating ideas. A number of other writers are having the same problem.
Still, the novel is gradually coming into focus. This time my main character, Katie Flanagan, is going to the Arctic circle on an expedition tracing the route of the doomed Franklin expedition to find the fabled North-West Passage. I won’t be giving anything away when I say that things do not go according to plan . . .
The photograph is of primroses in our garden.